SO THE QUESTION BEGS: Who exactly is the physics professor with the papers constantly clutched in his right hand? With nine of the last 12 Washington State basketball games being carried on TV, Jeff Hironaka’s presence on the Cougar sideline -- while three years and running -- has somehow grown more obvious. He’s talking with Ken Bone one minute, then down the bench instructing a player the next.
And when his eyes are on the court, it’s complete and total focus.
Either he always happens to be in the camera frame, or he’s everywhere at once.
“You might notice me more because I’m Japanese,” quips the WSU assistant coach when asked if he has any idea why he seems to be so clearly, extraordinarily, engaged during games.
True fact that it’s a rare sight in basketball to see folks of Japanese ancestry roaming the sidelines. The Rafu Shimpo, a newspaper serving the Japanese community in Los Angeles once dubbed Hironaka the “highest-ranking Japanese-American coach in the nation.”
But that’s not why he stands out in the crowd.
With the V-neck tees, dark sport coats, eyeglasss, salt-and-pepper hair and ever-present clutch of papers, the first thought isn’t his ancestry but the notion that he’s a man of science. Or perhaps an author of weighty books. Or both.
That could be why. He looks more like a teacher than a jock.
“Maybe I just stand up more than I should, being a former head coach,” he offers up in a phone conversation from Pittsburgh, where the Cougs will take on the Pitt Panthers today at 4 p.m. PT (HDNet TV) in the third and final game of the CBI championship series.
Or perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above.
Regardless, it's apparent in a short interview that no matter how much he's on TV, you can't know the true Jeff Hironaka until you talk with him.
He's an outstanding interview subject, falling on the scale somewhere near the intersection of fun, interesting and endearing.
A clue to his personality was on public display a week ago when kidded on Twitter by CF.C for wearing a purple shirt in the Oregon State game. He has no fashion sense, he pleaded, and pledged to try to do better next time out. Which he did, wearing a crimson shirt on Monday.
When it comes to his work on game day, however, there is no confusion like there is with picking shirts.
“I’m there to help Coach Bone, first and foremost. If I see something on offense or defense that can help, I let him know,” says Hironaka (pronounced Hear-an-knocka).
With the players, he makes sure they’re “dialed in on what we’re trying to do at any given time.” Case in point: Wednesday against Pitt, the Cougs on defense started switching on ball screens, which meant 6-11 Charlie Enquist took turns covering Panther guards. Enquist was worried about susceptibility to the drive so wasn’t defending them as close as he should have. That was allowing Pitt to stop and pop. “When Charlie came out of the game we talked about it, and that adjustment then made a difference in our ability to shut down their pick and roll,” Hironaka said.
On-ball defense will be key to the Cougars defeating Pitt today, he notes.
He says the papers he’s always holding in his hands contain every offensive and defensive play the Cougars run. He scans them repeatedly over the course of a game to see what might work with what the other team is doing. “I’m looking for ideas, and then I feed suggestions to Coach Bone.”
At age 55, the one-time 133-pound starting point guard for Eastern Oregon calls himself the old man of the coaching staff. Bone is 53, and fellow assistants Curtis Allen and Ben Johnson are in their 30s and 40s, respectively.
“I’m more of a fatherly figure to the players,” says Hiroanka, who grew up on the family farm in Weiser, Idaho. “They can come to me if someone else yelled at them.”
It’s a role that’s easy to understand. He’s personable, articulate and has a great sense of humor.
He and Bone have coached together for 14 seasons -- three at WSU and 11 at Seattle Pacific. When Bone left SPU, Hironaka succeeded him as head man and guided the Falcons to five NCAA tournaments in seven seasons.
So why give up a head coaching job to become an assistant?
"Division I," he says. "To get experience at the high-major level, get my feet wet and then see if a head coaching job might be out there -- whether that happens or not, I don't know."
Until then, Cougar fans, take heart in the fact WSU is the only school in the Pac-12 with its very own physics professor on the sidelines.